Olivia Arthur is a London-based photographer who has worked for many years on the East/West divide. Her exhibition Intimation was included in FOCUS Photography Festival, Mumbai.
You lived in Delhi some years ago, what is your relationship with India?
I actually moved to India in 2003 right after I finished college and I always say India is the place I learned to be a photographer.
There is only so much you can learn in college, getting out into the work and doing stories, working for clients, that’s when you work out what photography means to you and how you want to use it.
I return to India very often, sometimes for commissions and also for a large personal project I am still working on.
For these exhibitions you worked with subjects in Brighton and Mumbai. In what way did you adjust your approach?
Actually I tried to keep my approach to people and photographing them quite consistent in the different cities.
Though, of course, the culture and attitude to doing these kinds of intimate portraits is very different.
In Bombay it is something quite new and a bit taboo or exciting to do a nude portrait whereas in Brighton being open about one’s sexuality is really part of everyday life.
As a result, in Brighton I started to look for something else. I started to see this element of performance or the need to wear one’s sexuality on one’s sleeve.
I began photographing more outside and ended up including pictures like the hen party with a guy in it or Sally Vate getting ready for a drag performance.
Do you find commissioned projects allow you to explore themes you would not have considered otherwise?
Well I think I wouldn’t take on a commission if it was something that I wasn’t interested in at all.
But often it gives you a first step and then you find a way to shape it into something that you really have your heart in.
I had always wanted to make work about the conversation about sexuality in India so this commission gave me the way to start it.
The commission actually wanted it to just be the LGBTQ communities but I was keen to push it beyond those boundaries and have a more open conversation across the scale which is what I have done.
Now that I am going with the project I am keen to do more and looking to make another trip. So what started out as a commission becomes a personal project and I hope to make a book out of it some day.
How was the presentation of the exhibition different in each venue?
The major difference was in Brighton there were two separate rooms and Bharat and I showed our work separately.
I found that it was a shame to not have any conversation between the two photographers and two cities.
So in Bombay when we had one big room as a gallery space. I really pushed for us to mix the works and have a conversation between them on the walls.
I was much happier with the outcome and I think people found the juxtapositions really interesting.
Then in the middle of the room on two plinths we each had a book with our works separately. So you could see the intention of each photographer individually and yet see something playful between the two of us on the walls.
To what extent do you feel working in a festival/biennial context opens doors to new opportunities (rather than standalone exhibitions)?
This is a hard question to answer! I think that everything you do and every situation you show work in is very different.
In Bombay we had to show the work in a quite hidden-away gallery because of the nature of the content.
So there was a fear that people wouldn’t actually find us. But because it was part of a festival people did go on the festival trail and the numbers were good.
I’m happy that so many people were able to see it and hope the exhibition did raise questions for people about cultural attitudes.
Certainly the feedback from the LGBTQ communities was great.
Had it been a standalone exhibition I imagine it would have been much harder to get people there. I really hope that the show will travel and that we can do something more with the work.
We are hoping to take it to Delhi and then maybe further afield if we can.
Copy editing by Sheena Campbell.
Read more in our blog FOCUS Photography Festival, Mumbai.